Clicker Training – Technique and Philosophy (Part 2: Philosophy)

Clicker training encompasses both a technique and a philosophy. Part 1 of this article discussed the basic technique of clicker training. Part II of this article discusses the philosophy behind clicker training, with reference to technique as appropriate.

Using a clicker to mark desired behaviors in training sessions is a major part of clicker training, but there’s more to clicker training than formal training sessions.

The philosophy of clicker training encourages trainers to look for desirable behaviors at all times, mark them in some way, and then reinforce them with whatever reward happens to be handy. In other words, clicker training is something we can be doing all the time, even if we don’t have a clicker or food treats with us.

By looking for, and rewarding, desirable behaviors in everyday life, the clicker trainer increases the likelihood that desirable behaviors will happen, and decreases the likelihood of less desirable behaviors, by simple mathematics (the good behaviors fill up more and more time). Less desirable behaviors are ignored in the moment (assuming they aren’t dangerous), noted, and dealt with later, either through management of the environment or by training an alternative behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior. Since most pets thrive on attention, the behaviors we ignore will tend to occur less and less often, while those we are marking and rewarding will happen more frequently.

Put another way, a major part of the clicker training philosophy involves learning to look for what we want, rather than what we don’t want. For further discussion of this concept, you may want to peruse “Catch your pet doing something good.”

The philosophy of clicker training also involves setting the learner up for success. Ideally, clicker trainers promote error-free learning, in which the learner advances at just the right pace so that he or she is continuously improving, but never feels discouraged. This is one of the main ideas behind “shaping,” one of the primary methods clicker trainers use to get the behaviors they want (the other major method is called “capturing”).

Let’s start by discussing capturing, which is a little easier to explain. Capturing involves clicking when the learner performs a complete behavior that the trainer likes. It’s a very handy tool for behaviors the learner does frequently, since the trainer has many opportunities to reinforce these behaviors. For example, you can teach your dog to sit on cue by clicking and treating each time your dog happens to sit, until your dog starts intentionally offering you sits while looking at you in expectation of a click and treat, at which point you can teach a cue for the behavior.

Shaping, on the other hand, can be used to train behaviors that the learner rarely, or never, does (as well as behaviors that are more common). In shaping, the trainer rewards behaviors that may initially look almost nothing like the goal behavior, and gradually fine-tunes what the learner is doing to achieve a more complex or precise behavior. You can use shaping to teach your pet to do anything he or she is mentally and physically capable of, as long as you set appropriate goals along the way.

The treasured musical The Sound Of Music features an example of shaping in action. When Maria is teaching the children about music, she begins by introducing the first three notes of the scale: “do,” “re,” and “mi.” She then gradually adds the other major notes in the scale. Once the children have mastered the basic notes, Maria begins to teach them about harmony and chords.

If Maria had jumped straight into harmony and chords right away, she would likely have confused and frustrated the children, so she taught them the “building blocks” first. Though Rogers and Hammerstein may not have thought of it in these terms, what Maria was doing was shaping the children to understand music (the shaping is quite accelerated, of course, but that’s movie magic for you).

Here’s how you can use shaping to teach your pet to go to a mat

Begin by clicking and treating your pet for any sign of interest in the mat, even if it’s only a flick of the eyes in the direction of the mat. After you get a few glances at the mat, you can hesitate ever so slightly before clicking so that your pet has the opportunity to escalate his or her behavior a little, perhaps by leaning in the direction of the mat or even taking a step towards the mat. Click and reward once or twice for that escalation. Then look for a further escalation, however small (one step plus a lean, for example). Gradually build up to clicking and rewarding for taking two steps, three steps, and so on, until your pet learns go all the way to the mat.

The key to shaping is setting achievable goals, so that the learner doesn’t get frustrated and give up on the training session. If you find the learner is failing to “earn a click” on a regular basis, you’ve most likely set your criteria too high. For behaviors that are highly complex or involve an increase in duration or effort (a dog’s staying still for longer periods or a horse’s jumping a higher obstacle, for example), it’s a good idea to throw in a click for an easier version of the behavior once in a while (by going back to a shorter duration stay or a lower jump, for example) so that things aren’t continually getting harder for the learner.

One more piece of the philosophy of clicker training has to do with the teaching of cues. Clicker trainers only add a cue to a captured or shaped behavior after the behavior is established and occurs predictably. This helps ensure that the learner understands that the cue indicates one specific behavior. As you go through the process detailed above to teach your pet to go to a mat, you should not do any cueing. Simply stand quietly in the same area as your pet and the mat and let your pet figure out what the game is. Once your pet is consistently going to the mat, and you are confident that your pet will do so again, you can add a cue (adding cues will be discussed in a future article).

To learn more about clicker training and get in-person coaching, seek out a clicker trainer in your area (feel free to contact me even if you are not in the Los Angeles area as I can provide referrals, or use the links on the right side of the page). If you are interested in meeting other clicker trainers and learning about clicker training in depth from a variety of experts in the field, consider attending ClickerExpo.


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